Fund Public Safety First

By David L. Roche – Special to the American-Statesman

Posted: 11:51 a.m. Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Dallas shootings are a stark reminder of the risks police officers face every day to keep us safe.

Our dedicated public safety professionals deserve the support of a thankful community and the resources to do their jobs.

As the Austin City Council begins work on next year’s municipal budget, it’s important to recognize the warning signs that show we’re falling further behind when it comes to public safety. Violent crime is up more than 19 percent compared to this time last year. Emergency and urgent dispatch calls have increased during the past five years, which has resulted in longer response times to calls for help. And time available for community policing has fallen to disturbingly low levels.

While it’s evident that rapid growth strains law enforcement, the Austin City Council has failed to adopt even minimum police staffing recommendations since 2012, when the first taxpayer-funded study confirmed Austin needs many more patrol officers.

Local police staffing shortages have made headlines in recent months. Hundreds of detectives are being pulled from investigations and assigned to patrol shifts as a stopgap. In a survey released last month, 90 percent of Austin police officers said manpower shortages are “seriously impacting” the department’s ability to do its job effectively. And almost half said “more officers” is the “biggest improvement” needed for the Austin Police Department to do its job.

Last year, the Austin City Council shorted the police budget by millions of dollars and dozens of uniformed positions. The city manager’s proposal to add patrol officers was cut by nearly a third after a unanimous council vote. Then the City Council decided to spend $200,000 on a study to determine the right police staffing levels. That report, which is due to be released this month, is expected to confirm the Austin Police Department is inadequately staffed and will recommend adding more than 100 patrol officer positions.

How many more taxpayer-funded studies do we need to tell us what we already know? In 2011, the City Council commissioned a patrol staffing study at a cost of nearly $100,000. Based on projected population growth and analysis that examined police staffing in patrol and investigations, the study recommended adding at least 257 sworn positions by 2017. The City Council approved only 22 new police personnel — patrol and supervisor — in 2013; 47 more sworn positions were added in 2014 and 59 the following year.

The proposed fiscal year 2016 budget introduced a better police staffing model based on community engagement time, not a population ratio. The new formula emphasizes effective community policing based on patrol officers having enough time to build relationships and trust in the neighborhoods they serve. Notably, an independent analysis of the improved model cautioned that the “recent failure of the city to implement the recommendations of the past three years for the number of police needed puts Austin in a precarious position on public safety.” The city manager’s 2016 fiscal-year budget proposed 85 additional patrol and supervisor positions based on a plan to increase staff to sufficient levels in the next five years, but the council approved just 50, putting the police department further behind.

The Greater Austin Crime Commission urges the mayor and council not to disregard the public safety challenges we face as they confront difficult budget choices. If ignored, public safety will end up like mobility and transportation: too far behind to catch up — and with far more grave and deadly consequences.

Police Chief Art Acevedo and his colleagues have the most difficult job in Austin. City leaders are only making it harder.

Roche is president of the Greater Austin Crime Commission. The Crime Commission was founded in 1997 to support Central Texas first responders and promote regional public safety planning.